The publicity posters for the Gamper game in Barcelona did not feature Cesc Fabregas. Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and the new signing Neymar were all visible, passionate in play, Barcelona's biggest names used to promote their grand pre-season curtain-raiser against Neymar's old club, Santos.
Fabregas would not have expected to be included, for he is not one of Barcelona's biggest stars. He is very good, a popular player noted for his thorough professionalism. He is a Barcelona fan, since he grew up in Arenys, 40km to the north. He is now settled in central Barcelona, where he rents a house with his Lebanese partner, whom he met in London while playing at Arsenal, and their newborn baby.
Fabregas is content at Barcelona and the club - at least those on the playing side - are happy with him. Pep Guardiola worked hard to bring him back from Arsenal and Barcelona have no pressing financial need to sell, yet Guardiola is no longer at the club.
Fabregas has been involved in a drawn-out transfer move before. He also has had his head turned before, in his professional and private life. He moved to Arsenal at 16, then back to Barcelona, where things have gone well. They could have gone better. He would rather have started in the biggest games last season, have not been booed by a vocal minority of his own fans, as he was in April as Barcelona's European hopes fell apart.
Manchester United have been in contact with Fabregas since the end of last season and the English Premier League champions are under the firm understanding that Fabregas is open to the idea of moving to Old Trafford. Knowing that, United have made two firm bids for the player, the second one being for ?35 million (Dh170.4m). That would be United's record transfer fee and the second highest Barcelona have ever received for selling a player, but it's not enough. Not yet.
Barca have been adamant he is going nowhere. Fabregas has said nothing. Why? If he was as happy as some in Catalonia say, a simple statement would have killed the speculation. His silence underscores that Fabregas is interested in United because he has to keep his options option if he's not going to be a regular starter.
Why? Barcelona started with their strongest XI on Friday night, though Neymar began the game on the bench, primed to come on to a heroic welcome. Fabregas sat alongside him. It was only a pre-season friendly, but it was a symbolic one. It was Barcelona's best XI and Fabregas was not in it, just as he is not expected to start ahead of Barca's glorious triumvirate of Sergio Busquets, Iniesta and Xavi, nor Messi and Neymar. Fabregas came on at half time and excelled as the Catalans destroyed the Brazilians 8-0.
Xavi claimed last week that talk of Fabregas moving was nothing more than newspaper mongering. If that is so, why have Barcelona's players been talking about the move? Why do they know the exact figures that United have been offering for Fabregas? If it really was just talk, why are they even bothering to discuss it?
Following the Gamper match, the Barca coach Gerardo Martino said: "I would prefer that Cesc stays with us. In fact, I'll be bold enough to say that he is going to stay. This isn't me being over-confident, just what I hope will happen."
Martino later told Barca's official website that Fabregas's future lies in his own hands.
"I would prefer him to stay with us and I dare say he will, but it's his decision," he said. "Cesc will decide the situation, but it has not occurred to me that I won't be able to count on him."
That was the first time Barca have not been categorical in denial, prompting their fans to discuss him leaving. A day later, as Barcelona were in Tel Aviv for a game, the coach praised forward Jean Marie Dongou, 18, who has done well during pre-season, saying he offers an option if Messi or Fabregas are injured.
Martino will not decide whether he stays and the decision isn't solely one for the player, either. The decision will be made by the club president, Sandro Rosell, not by sporting director Andoni Zubizerreta, who said on Sunday: "Manchester United are interested in the player, but it's also true that they understand our position of not wanting to sell. He has a contract with us. They have renounced his signing. We aren't going to sell him."
United have not renounced anything, they just haven't yet put in a third bid. Zubizerreta was not being misleading, nor was he being accurate, but as with many major football transfers, there are two versions of the truth.
United's lead is coming from the top and their new executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward. He would not be wasting his time if he did not think it was worthwhile.
Money is a major factor. Fabregas earns ?6m (Dh29.2m) a year. United are willing to pay him much more. Sources close to the player say he would struggle to turn down a ?10m-a-year deal, a huge pay raise of 40 per cent.
If he is paid closer to ?10m, his salary would be in line with Robin van Persie, but still less than Wayne Rooney. Despite reports to the contrary, their focus has never shifted from Fabregas to other players. He has been their No 1 transfer target all summer and nothing has changed.
There would be other positives for Fabregas if he moved back to the Premier League. He would be a bigger star at Old Trafford than he is in Barcelona, probably the main man alongside Van Persie. He would be a poster boy, he would play every week for the English champions in a season ahead of next year's World Cup in Brazil, where he is desperate to play for the world champions, Spain.
Barcelona will not entertain the idea of selling him until the player asks for a move. If he does that, he will be portrayed negatively in his homeland, but if he does, it helps Barcelona justify losing another attacking midfielder, after Thiago Alcantara joined Bayern Munich in July. It is a high-stakes game, but who will blink first? Both sides have already started twitching.
Nor will Barcelona entertain the idea of selling him unless the fee is right. When it is, and that means a fee in excess of ?40 million, the decision will be made by the club president, not anyone on the sporting side.
Fabregas has a difficult decision to make. First, he needs to feel the full support of all those at Barca.
Barca fans are applying pressure on him to clarify his position. Maybe he will. Or maybe he will mull over United's interest in a Bangkok hotel room, as Barcelona prepare for their next pre-season friendly against the Thai national team on Wednesday evening.
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